- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

NEW YORK (AP) - The Las Vegas Sun won the Pulitzer Prize for public service Monday for exposing a high death rate among construction workers on the Las Vegas Strip. The New York Times received five Pulitzers, including one for breaking the call-girl scandal that destroyed Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s career.

The Detroit Free Press won in the local reporting category for obtaining a trove of sexually explicit text messages that brought down the city’s mayor. The judges also awarded a Pulitzer in local reporting to the East Valley Tribune of Mesa, Ariz., for revealing how a sheriff’s focus on immigration enforcement endangered investigations of other crimes.

The awards were announced after one of the most depressing years the newspaper industry has ever seen, with layoffs, bankruptcies and closings brought on by the recession and an exodus of readers and advertisers to the Internet.

“These are tough times for America’s newspapers, but amid the gloomy talk, the newspaper winners and the finalists are heartening examples of the high-quality journalism that can be found in all parts of the United States,” said Sig Gissler, administrator of the prizes. “It’s quite notable that the watchdog function of journalism is underscored in this year’s awards. The watchdog still barks, and the watchdog still bites.”

The only other multiple winner was the St. Petersburg Times. It was honored for national reporting for fact-checking what the candidates said during the 2008 White House campaign, and for feature writing for Lane DeGregory’s story on a neglected girl who was unable to talk or feed herself.

The presidential race also figured in the Pulitzer awarded in commentary: Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post was honored for his columns on Barack Obama’s historic run for the White House.

No Pulitzers were awarded for coverage of the biggest financial crisis since the Depression. And despite a rule change that allowed online-only news organizations to compete for Pulitzers for the first time, none of the 65 entries won any prizes.

However, the board said online content played a role in several of the winning entries.

In a measure of what the recession and the Internet have done to the newspaper industry, the Detroit paper’s award came less than a month after it cut back home delivery to three days a week.

Similarly, the Pulitzer for editorial cartooning went to Steve Breen of The San Diego Union-Tribune, which was sold last month to a private equity firm after its advertising plunged 40 percent since 2006 and it forced employees to take unpaid furloughs.

The Las Vegas newspaper was cited for the “courageous reporting” of Alexandra Berzon, whose stories about lax enforcement of safety rules on the Las Vegas Strip led to changes in policy and improved workplace conditions.

The death toll on the Strip had reached nine in 16 months as casino giants undertook a $32 billion building boom, including the largest private commercial development in U.S. history. Berzon described how the rush to build quickly and at highly congested work sites led to safety shortcuts that contributed to deaths.

The awards also follow a difficult year for The New York Times, which is dealing with the burden of a heavy debt, forcing the distinguished paper to ask employees for pay cuts and seek an infusion of cash from a Mexican billionaire investor.

The Times was first to report that Spitzer was a client of a high-end prostitution ring, leading to his shocking resignation. The paper also won for international reporting for its coverage of deepening U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan; for criticism, for Holland Cotter’s art reviews; for feature photography, for Damon Winter’s coverage of Barack Obama’s campaign; and for investigative reporting to David Barstow, for revealing how the networks used military commentators who had ties to the Pentagon or defense contractors.

The five Pulitzers won by the Times are the second-highest total in the newspaper’s history; it won seven in 2002, in large part for its coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Free Press helped expose a steamy extramarital affair between Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and an aide. Kilpatrick pleaded guilty, lost his office and served 99 days in jail for lying under oath about the affair during a whistle-blower lawsuit.

The Pulitzer for explanatory reporting went to the Los Angeles Times for its coverage of the cost and effectiveness of efforts to fight wildfires across the West.

In the breaking news photography category, Patrick Farrell of The Miami Herald won for his images of the humanitarian disaster that unfolded in Haiti after Hurricane Ike.

“I’m walking on Cloud Nine. I’m overwhelmed, I’m humbled _ it’s such a huge honor,” Farrell, 49. But noting the cutbacks that have swept the Herald, he said: “This is the last week for a few of our colleagues. I would prefer not to have won this in this climate, but I’m just grateful.”

Mark Mahoney of 32,000-circulation Post-Star in Glens Falls, N.Y., received the Pulitzer in editorial writing for his writings about government secrecy and the public’s right to know.

“If I’m going to win, I’m glad it’s for that,” Mahoney said. “I think this indicates that we really are making a difference.”

Mahoney said he thought he was in trouble when his publisher called him at a Burger King and told him to come to his office immediately. The publisher announced Mahoney’s Pulitzer in front of the whole staff, who gave the 21-year Post-Star veteran a standing ovation.

The Pulitzers are the most prestigious award in journalism and are given out annually by Columbia University on the recommendation of a 19-person board. Each award carries a $10,000 prize except for the public service award, which is a gold medal.

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On the Net:

http://www.pulitzer.org

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